It is cold and flu season. Maybe you have come down with a fever for the last few days with a mild headache and stuffy nose. You think, “I must be getting a touch of some bug.” Over the next couple of days, your knees start to ache, perhaps swell a bit and the pain becomes worse as it spreads to other joints, especially your hands.
Looking in the mirror one morning you are startled to see your cheeks look flaming red like they have been slapped. Alarmed you run over to a clinic to be checked out. The physician takes a careful history asking you if you have been in contact with any children who may be ill. You remember helping in your child’s class last week surrounded by the kids working on an art project. That would have been an opportune time to be exposed to Fifth’s disease (erythema infectiosum), which is spread by an airborne virus called the parvovirus B19.
Fifth’s disease is a common viral infection that typically affects children ages 5 to 15. By the time the rash develops, 4 to 14 days after exposure, the person is no longer contagious. Even though the virus is called a parvovirus it is not related to the parvovirus in dogs and cannot be spread by animals.
Fifth’s disease is not a serious illness and usually resolves without problems. There is no specific treatment, just anti-imflammatories and rest. Pregnant women should avoid contact with anyone with fifth’s disease as there is a small risk of miscarriage. Other immuno-supressed people such those with sickle cell, organ transplant or HIV are at risk though and should see their doctors to determine the need for medical treatment.
It is estimated that 50% of adults have had fifth’s disease as children but may never have developed symptoms. However, if you are an adult who was not exposed during childhood, you could develop it after contact with an ill child. This happened to a friend of mine who is a kindergarten teacher. She thought she was developing knee arthritis until she developed the rash. It is common for up to 60% of the other children in a class to develop an outbreak after exposure to a fellow student with fifth’s disease.